Three grassroots groups in the DC Metro area—the Montgomery and Anne Arundel chapters of Start School Later (SSL) and SLEEP in Fairfax—are joining forces to push area school systems to provide later morning start times for high school students. All three groups are circulating online petitions asking local school boards to push back bell times to better meet the sleep, health, safety, and learning needs of adolescents.
Petition signatures in the three local areas are nearing 20,000. The Montgomery County Start School Later petition has garnered over 8,500 signatures in the past month, Anne Arundel’s petition has 1,850 signatures, and SLEEP in Fairfaxhas 9,158.
Convinced by the research and buoyed by each other’s efforts, local advocates are united by a common vision and are learning from other counties like Arlington and Loudoun, VA, that have successfully shifted schedules. The school board in Fairfax, VA, recently set a goal to start high schools after 8 a.m., but no changes have been implemented.
“We all believe this is a critical public health problem. By working together, we can combine volunteer resources to press more effectively for start times that are more appropriate for adolescents,” noted Kari Oakes, PA-C, co-founder of SSL-Anne Arundel and Research Director at SSL, a physician assistant with many years of experience working with adolescents and young adults.
“Even when I do manage to get my work done early, I just can’t close my eyes until 11:30,” wrote a high school student from Annapolis, MD, on the Anne Arundel petition. “My doctor told me to take melatonin if I was having that much trouble falling asleep earlier. I’m not alone in this, as my friends have been told and have tried to do the same. It doesn’t really help. School has stopped being fun and has instead become one the biggest stressors in my life.”
Today’s very early high school start times—7:17, 7:20, and 7:25 a.m., in Anne Arundel, Fairfax, and Montgomery county high schools respectively—necessitate rise times between 5 and 6 a.m., since buses begin picking up students as early as 5:45 a.m. These hours are incompatible with known sleep patterns of teenagers, most of whom need about 9 hours of sleep a night. Physiology limits their ability to fall asleep much before 11 p.m., regardless of homework and extracurricular demands or electronic distractions. Shifted body clocks mean that waking teens at 6 a.m. is like waking adults at 3 a.m. and is akin to shift work.
“Sleep deprivation, with such health consequences as depression, suicide, car crashes, and increased risk of other injuries, should be treated like hunger,” said Mandi Mader, LCSW-C, founder of SSL Montgomery County. “We don’t expect children to learn without food and we shouldn’t expect them to learn without sleep.”
“Research is on the side of the advocates,” added Phyllis Payne, MPH, co-founder of SLEEP in Fairfax. “Numerous studies show that high schoolers with later morning start times not only have improved moods and school performance, but also more sleep each night than those in schools with very early schedules.”
“Cost is an oft-cited reason that school systems use to avoid changing school schedules, but many schools have now returned to more traditional school hours (closer to 8:30 or 9:00 for high schools) without adding buses or increasing the transportation budget.” said Start School Later’s co-director, Terra Ziporyn Snider, PhD, a medical writer and historian. “Creative solutions can be found when schools prioritize health, safety, equity, and learning.”